Joell Ortiz once proclaimed that he would settle for nothing less than a position next to 50 Cent and Jay-Z in the ranks of hip hop’s elite. That’s an awfully bold statement coming from somebody whom the majority of mainstream music consumers have likely never heard of. Nonetheless, it appears that a certain legendary beatsmith, who has been important in the careers of the two aforementioned giants, shares this vision and is poised to help make it into a reality. Just days before the following interview, Ortiz inked a potentially life-changing deal with Aftermath Entertainment, the storied record label helmed by none other than Dr. Dre, a man whose expertise has been known to turn little-known regional standouts into worldwide superstars. Before the release of his Aftermath debut in 2007, Ortiz is dropping The Brick, a mixtape album on Koch Records, in late 2006. XXLMAG.COM recently touched base with the pride of Brooklyn’s Cooper Houses to discuss his plans for world domination.
Joell Ortiz “125 Grams” (click here for video)
Congratulations on the new deal. How did you link up with Dre?
I actually just got a phone call in May that Dre wanted to fly me out, that he had heard some songs through a friend of mine, Karen, up at Interscope. I think she had hooked it up or whatever. But he flew me out and it was crazy. It was like 10 or 15 minutes of me playing songs. He was just like, “Yo, I’m feeling you.” I’m like, “Yo, what the dilly, yo?” He’s like, “Yo, you wanna be Aftermath?” I’m like, “You’re damn right I wanna be Aftermath!”
Aftermath is notorious for signing artists and letting them sit on the shelf. Was that something you considered?
Nah, it wasn’t an issue because I’d been doing my homework on labels before I even went over there and seen what’s going on. I realize that with bigger labels, with bigger machines, you gotta make them interested. You gotta be the momentum they want to push. So I wasn’t worried about that. I knew that if we stick to our game plan the same way we got myself buzzing in New York that we would get them interested. I’ll be coming out and everyone will want to know who Joell Ortiz is so I’m cool with that.
I know you use the Internet a lot. You have your site, a MySpace page, you write a journal on HipHopGame.com. Would you say the Internet played a big part in building a buzz around your name?
Oh, definitely. The Internet was huge in my buzz—Hip Hop Game to MySpace to my website. It kept me in touch with what was going on in the underground and what people wanted to hear and it [created] a strong fan base. My Internet fans are going to come with me on the Aftermath ride also. If I can give any advice to anyone up and coming, they need to get up with the Internet because it’s a hidden world—now, I think it’s pretty exposed out there—but when I was writing it, Hip Hop Game and all that, it wasn’t super popular. Now everybody’s leakin’ stuff through there, so yes, I would say the Internet was huge in my signing and a big part in my career.
What about in terms of feedback you get? Being online allows you to connect directly with fans.
Yeah, you get the criticism too. You get the, “Oh, on this joint…” but a lot of my feedback, I ain’t gonna lie, is extremely positive. It just kept me inspired, kept me motivated. I didn’t have to switch up or nothing, like, “Oh word? They saying this about me?” Everybody just kind of connected with me. I’m like the underdog, being Latino. You know how hard it’s been for a Latino getting in the door without a label or [by] just being a nice Puerto Rican rapper. Dudes [online] are like, “He’s nice. He’s not nice for a Spanish rapper, he’s just nice.” The Internet kept me going that way.
People have compared you to Pun, as far as your rhyme style, and the fact hat you’re Latino. I know you mentioned him as a big influence. Do you feel like the similarities could possibly hold you back?
Nah, that won’t hold me back. How can that hold me back when he was great? If I was being compared to just a plain rapper, it might bother me or hold me back. But I’m being compared to sheer greatness. I love the comparisons. Those are hard shoes to fill [so] at the same time, I want people to know that I’m my own artist. If it takes them to hear [through] word of mouth, Yo, he reminds me of Pun, for them to listen to me, I’m okay with it. When they listen to me, they’ll realize I’m Puerto Rican, yes, I’m a little heavy set, but I’m Joell Ortiz.
A few years back, you won the EA Sports battle and your song was included on the soundtrack for NBA Live 2005. You were also supposed to get a deal with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def. Can you talk about why that deal didn’t work out?
That was a long time ago. It was just a battle I had won, and I was supposed to get paid. I hadn’t received anything, but that was a long time ago. That was before. This is after. Aftermath. I ain’t even dwelling on what went on back then. It’s all good, I’m looking forward to that. EA Sports knows what’s up though. We cool.
Your rhyme style is very New York. You use a lot of metaphors and punch lines, and you have somewhat of a complex rhyme structure. That’s not really what’s selling records at the moment. What about your project is going to make people go to the record store and cop your album?
Because I’m not going to be…how can I put this? I need to word this very carefully. I’m not worrying about what’s selling. That’s not my issue. The minute you start worrying about what’s selling, you start making songs out of your norm. If I can make the songs I’ve been making the way they are: heartfelt songs, only Joell Ortiz, not what’s selling, just let the beat talk to me, let me continue writing how I write, I’m gonna be fine. Like the Big Pun comparison, you can’t deny greatness. You can’t deny something that’s just that good. Like for instance, if the beats are hot, you can dance to it. You ain’t gotta be dancing if I’m telling you to put your cup down or get on a fat ass or something. People dance to crazy songs, so I’m gonna continue making crazy songs, not directing anything at the clubs. If I do get a club oriented beat, I’m gonna do it the way I do it. People will want to dance to Joell’s songs.
Ever since the whole 50 Cent phenomena a lot of New York MCs are flooding the market with mixtapes. I notice you haven’t been saturating the market like some other artists tend to do. Was that a conscious decision?
I like everything that I do to be phenomenal, to be groundbreaking, to be big, for every look to be crazy. I don’t want to flood my name in the mixtape market and get boring. I like to be exclusive. I like [people] to be like, Oh my God, you’re telling me he’s on that mixtape? Lemme hear what he gotta say. Another thing is, right now we’re in a period of change coming out of New York and I don’t want to be friend or foe with anybody. By getting on certain mixtapes, you’re involved in nonsense that’s not even supposed to come your way. Whether it’s like, Oh, he raps with him? I don’t want to be affiliated with nobody. I want to run Joell Ortiz’s race, and get the gold medal. Dre’s gonna help me do that and the whole world will witness that and we’ll be fine.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about New York falling off and losing its title as the center of the world of hip-hop. Do you think it’s something the region will ever be able to get past?
You mean some of the former big dawgs not being able to sit in their throne anymore? I think the move for the former big dawgs is to embrace this new class. The new class knows what you were. The new class bases their rhymes and a whole lot of good culture on what you got started. Right now it’s in the South so the East in general is on some… you know what I mean? They really wound up, they really tight right now. But you can’t be mad at what’s going on. For so many years, the East has held it down. I’m actually tired of hearing East Coast rappers with the “I’m gonna bring New York back” scheme. I think it’s getting corny. That’s not a shot to anyone, but I just think everyone should concentrate and make great songs like we always knew we could and everything will be fine. And as far as the big dawgs, man, like the President of the United States, you can only reelect twice. You had a term. In order to stay alive, you embrace the new President. If you can help out another campaign, help it out, especially if you believe in it. That’s how I feel about the once-was dudes that was on top. You still on top in your own way, if you embrace the new class and help them stay in the light too.